The makeshift sanctuary at the church that I attend on Sunday mornings was full of Chinese people last week; this week there were none. The police came during a midweek meeting and asked questions that were not answered satisfactorily. The congregants were sent home and their leaders were given a list of regulations from the Religious Bureau that clearly spelled out the "do's and don'ts" for religious gatherings. The most notable regulation dictated that foreigners may not preach to Chinese people. Foreigners can have their own meeting but mixing is not allowed. The group of Chinese people would have to register if they wanted to hold meetings. This would probably mean joining with another larger government church. This was not an option that anyone wanted to explore; they met somewhere else this week.
There was nothing about this small church that should have attracted the attention of the authorities. They were not calling for the overthrow of the Communist government nor were they encouraging their members to participate in "dangerous religious rituals." The members of the church were law abiding citizens who continually prayed for peace in China and asked for God's blessing on the city. If one could find any fault with the small church, perhaps it would be the Pentecostal nature of its worship service which did produce some noise. But the church was located in a commercial district and on any given day, the noise would be barely discernible. In short, the authorities 'raided' the meeting because of its religious nature. The Chinese government has always been and still is now afraid of any organized religion that does not directly fall under their control.
During the past 5 years, the government has made a concerted effort to convince the world that Chinese citizens enjoy the same religious freedoms as are guaranteed to people in the West. This effort has been quite successful and there are religious leaders around the world as well as in China who deny that persecution is taking place here. The government has been able to achieve this 'facade' of religious tolerance through a few different mechanisms. First, the government has convinced most of its own people that there is religious freedom in China. This has not been difficult considering that most people in China consider themselves to be atheists; most have never tested the limits of religious freedom. Thus, when you talk to a Chinese person about religious freedom in China, they will without hesitation tell you that the people are free to worship as they please in China. Secondly, the government has been able to hide their persecution of Christians by charging church leaders and followers with crimes that are completely unrelated to their supposed offense. In many cases, this method renders persecution virtually invisible to the average citizen or foreigner who is living in China. For this reason there have been various pastors from the West who have visited China and returned home suggesting that persecution no longer exists. I lived in a small town in Central China for a year and never heard any talk of persecution against Christians. Imagine my surprise when I returned to my country and was informed that there dozens of Christians in jail in the very city where I had lived.
But perhaps the most important factor that perpetrates this false perception of religious freedom in China is the great disconnect that exists between churches and leaders. It is well known that persecution is often a local phenomenon in China. Some house churches are able to stay off the 'radar' because the local authorities have bigger problems to handle than enforcing regulations handed down by the Religious Bureau. Recently, I had the chance to sit down with a house church leader in Northern China. He explained to me in a convincing manner that 'times have changed' in China. He said that the stories of persecution circulated by the West about China are at least five years old and that the current leadership in China is very friendly towards religion. He also informed me that he had recently been picked up by the police. "They just wanted to ask me a few questions," he explained. I told them the truth. Yes, I'm a pastor at a church. Yes, I am a Christian." An hour later, they allowed him to leave and apologized for the inconvenience. A few weeks later, the policemen who had detained him invited him to have dinner with them. It was a happy ending. But my pastor friend was not aware of Christians who had been arrested and imprisoned in the very city in which he lived. He had never heard of churches being burnt down in other parts of China or of Christians being subjected to beatings. He made a feeble attempt to justify these actions suggesting perhaps that the offenders were not real Christians at all. However, I could tell that he was surprised to hear about this persecution. I was just as surprised to discover that a pastor of a house church had never heard of other Christians being persecuted in China. I tried to show him that just because one house church in one area of the country is relatively safe against interference by the government does not mean that other parts of the country are equally safe. And I also reminded him that history has shown time and time again that no church in China is immune from government persecution.
It is also important to recognize that persecution does not always occur at the official level. Two months ago, I received an urgent text message from a young Christian lady who wrote that "her life was in danger." Her father had discovered that she was a Christian and had already beaten her heavily. She was afraid that he would kill her and she was thinking about going to talk to the police. If any situation was the epitome of being 'between a rock and a hard place' this was it. Who could she turn to for help? I wanted to help her but she was too far away; she wanted people to pray for her. Christians worldwide are even less likely to hear about this kind of situation.
The events that transpired at the little church where I attend were not so dramatic or painful compared to other such actions against churches in China. However, the fact that there are foreigners involved in the church may have 'softened the blow.' The Chinese authorities are anxious to make a good impression on ex pats in their country. I can only imagine that this 'slap on the wrist' pales in comparison to what other churches around China without foreigners in their midst must be subjected to.
As the 2008 Olympics approach, the Chinese government is likely to further its attempts to convince the world that its people are enjoying the freedom to meet and worship as they please. Do not be fooled. While the Communist Party mouthpieces are busy polishing the image of China to the world, the long arm of Beijing and the Religion Bureau will be tightening its grip on the millions of Chinese Christians who meet together in unregistered churches. There are many who think that the Olympics will transform China and force it to improve its human right's record. They are wrong. The only changes that the Olympics are bringing to China are in the form of new buildings and an influx of tourist dollars. The Olympics last for sixteen days and then the grand show is over. It would be naive to think that the Chinese government would reverse years of policy for the sake of sixteen days. There are those in fact who somberly wonder if perhaps China's human rights record will regress after the Olympics have come and gone. Only time will tell.
Meanwhile it is said that China's underground Christian church is stronger than ever. The Chinese government may think that they can control religion but they do not understand it. Persecution is talked about in the Bible as a reality that true Christians will face; persecution only serves to make the church stronger. It brings people closer together and inspires their faith. Persecution also draws people in as they observe the strength with which the Christians persevere. Thus, the policy of persecution is and always has been a great miscalculation on the part of the Chinese government.
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Chinese Christians put us to shame do they not? We do not like persecution. But I think soon, Americans are going to learn the lessons of persecution are the only way we can see more americans coming to Christ, since the Hate Crime Bill has been passed.
Thank you for shedding light on what is happening to christians who are not living in democratic countries where freedom of worship is a constitutional right. It is a challenge for us to take advantage and evangelise because we are free as well as intercede for these brethren in china and elsewhere. God bless